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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Crackdown, American Style

June 24, 2008

What China seems to be learning from the US
By Tom Scocca
The Boston Globe (USA)
June 22, 2008

IT WAS THE diaper bag that marked us as potential terrorists. We were
on our way through security at the airport in Urumqi, the capital of
the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China's northwestern-most
territory. We were flying back to Beijing with the baby on an early
evening flight, after a two-day trip.

I had been bracing for an argument over the stroller. On the outbound
flight, it had fit folded up through the X-ray machine, but Urumqi's
baggage scanner was too small for it. To my surprise, the security
workers were willing to hand-scan it and pass it through. But there
was a problem with the diaper bag.

The airport-security wringer is a fairly new feature of life in
China. When I first began traveling between the United States and the
People's Republic four years ago, only one side had airports that
felt like they were located in a totalitarian state: America. The
land of liberty was where you had to strip off your shoes and belt,
where your checked baggage would be diverted and pawed through by a
squad of inspectors, where guards would stop you if you tried to make
a cellphone call from baggage claim. Eventually, after the
liquid-explosives alarm, it was where you couldn't even bring a drink
of water on the flight.

What is America's real contribution to global culture in the 21st
century? In the airport line, as in so many other parts of modern
life, China has been catching up with the way things are done in the
United States. While our actors and activists lecture China about how
the advance of liberty cannot and must not be stopped, the American
experience has been sending out the opposite message: In a dangerous
world, freedom and privacy must yield to the demands of law and order.

China wasn't lacking in law and order to begin with. But with the
Olympics set for August, the Chinese authorities have begun speaking
in terms that sound familiar to American ears.

In March, state-run news reported that a passenger or passengers had
tried to bring down a flight out of Urumqi, using gasoline as the
would-be weapon. Xinjiang is predominantly Muslim territory, with a
history of separatist activity among the indigenous Uighur people.
When the United States declared a global war on terrorism after the
Sept. 11 attacks, Xinjiang extremists were included on the list of
opponents. The details of the gasoline plot were never quite clear,
but the result was: soon after, China instituted an American-style
liquids ban of its own.

In exchange for hosting the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government
promised greater openness and adherence to international human-rights
norms. But it also promised that the Beijing Games would be safe. And
if the latter promise gets in the way of the former ones, so be it.
The world will get over the detention of a few dissidents much faster
than it would get over a terrorist attack. When the foe is terrorism,
the enemy may be anywhere; the battleground is the world of everyday
life. It is necessary, in a campaign against terrorism, to emphasize
insecurity. A worried public is more cooperative with its protectors.
The rioting in Lhasa this spring, widely televised in China, didn't
undermine public confidence in the government's legitimacy; it
fortified it: These are the kind of people we have to deal with.

America is exporting the strategies and equipment to prevent such an
attack. Last year, The New York Times reported that companies such as
IBM, Honeywell, and General Electric have been supplying hardware and
software to help Beijing build a state-of-the-art surveillance system
for the games - allowing the city's security network of hundreds of
thousands of cameras to automatically detect suspicious people or
unusual crowd behavior.

On our way out of Urumqi, the X-ray machine said we were the suspect
people. Two officers, a man and a woman, were hand-inspecting bags
that had flunked the scan. From the diaper bag, they produced two
bottles of sunscreen, mine and the baby's. I keep forgetting about
sunscreen - it's one of those maddening items that you need to carry
around everywhere, until you have to go through airport security, at
which time you need to switch from making sure you have it to making
sure you don't have it.

The last time I'd forgotten, it had just been the baby's sun lotion,
and an officer had waved it through out of sympathy. But two bottles?
I stood convicted of boneheadedness. The sunscreen (irreplaceable on
the Chinese market) went into the bin by the officers' feet, with
other fliers' castoff bottled water and snacks.

Then they pulled out the two jars of baby food.

Technically, baby food is illegal under the new Chinese security
rules. This marks one of the key differences between Chinese security
procedures and American ones. In America, the rules may be intrusive,
inconvenient, and pointless - and they can be foolishly and
inflexibly applied - but people expect there to be, at bottom, some
sign of reasonableness. Passengers need to be able to take their
medicine on a plane, or take out their contact lenses. Babies need to eat.

The Chinese authorities, on the other hand, don't worry about whether
or not people think the text of the rules is reasonable. The rule
bans fluids. Baby food is fluid-like. Baby food is on the banned list.

Till Urumqi, however, the food hadn't been a problem. Airport
screeners would see the baby, see the baby's food, and let it pass.
The male officer at Urumqi was ready to do the same. But the woman
overruled him: no baby food allowed. The jars would have to go in the bin.

It was a little before 6 p.m., the baby's dinnertime. Skipping a meal
was not an option. He had screamed all the way to Xinjiang, and we
were hoping to avoid a repeat performance on the return leg. We
offered to feed him right there, at the security checkpoint. But baby
food was not allowed. It had to be confiscated.

Somehow, while I argued with the female officer, my wife got her
hands on one of the jars and began spooning fruit into the baby's
mouth. The baby did not burst into flames. Unimpressed, the officer
held on to the second jar. Perhaps the blueberries were a decoy, and
the strained peas were the real explosives.

Is a terrorist attack against the Olympics a genuine threat?
Unfortunately, that's as hard to know in Beijing as it is in New
York. Besides the reported airplane attack, there was a bus explosion
in Shanghai this spring, and the government has reported raids in the
west on heavily armed Uighur and Tibetan groups, including finds of
weapons cached in Buddhist monasteries. The armed-monk plot may sound
far-fetched to American ears, but it's not much more implausible than
the kung-fu terrorist cell our own government announced it had broken
up in Miami, or the feeble-minded alleged schemes to flood Lower
Manhattan or cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge with wire nippers.

The difference, I suppose, is that the United States is a democracy
trying to protect its citizens, while China is a dictatorship trying
to keep ironclad control. But good intentions are hard to prove. It's
the difference between Ronald Reagan's vision of America as City on a
Hill and the original version put forth by John Winthrop: In
Winthrop's reckoning, the Puritan settlement in the New World stood
as much chance of setting a bad example for all as a good one.

What China sees is what we do, and the distinction between the two
countries' policies is not always obvious to the Chinese. Nor, as
China expands the security mandate to avoid Olympic disruptions of
all sorts, would the difference be so obvious to the people
preemptively arrested during the IMF meetings in Washington, D.C., in
2003, or before the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004.

So China is cracking down, in the name of a secure Olympics. The
police are more and more frequently stopping foreigners on the
street, even in expat-friendly neighborhoods, and asking to see their
passports and visas. Visas have replaced air quality as the
inescapable topic of conversation. Routine renewals are no longer
routine; the authorities demand proof of financial security,
certification of lodging, and an itinerary and plane ticket
demonstrating that you intend to leave China.

A year ago, declaring you wanted to get out of the country for the
Olympics was an affectation, a way for old China hands to express
their dismay at the thought of a once-challenging city being overrun
by soft hordes of first-time tourists. Lately, it's become a
practical decision - better to wait out the security squeeze back
home than to put up with the new annoyances. That, at least, is
another difference between China's heightened security and America's:
here in Beijing, it might have an end date.

Tom Scocca is a writer in Beijing.
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